Hi everyone! I’m so honoured to have Ashley Hope Pérez here on the blog today to discuss Out of Darkness. I loved this book so much and it definitely made me cry for a week straight. I hope you all enjoy this interview and check out the book!
About the Book
Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez
Released September 1st 2015
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This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”
New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them.
“No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs.”
They know the people who enforce them.
“They all decided they’d ride out in their sheets and pay Blue a visit.”
But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.
“More than grief, more than anger, there is a need. Someone to blame. Someone to make pay.”
Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.
About the Author
Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of three novels: Out of Darkness (2015), The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and What Can’t Wait (2011). Out of Darkness received starred reviews from SLJ and Kirkus, which called the novel “a powerful, layered tale of love in times of unrelenting racism.” What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly appear on YALSA Best Fiction for YA and Popular Paperbacks lists.
Ashley holds a doctorate in comparative literature and teaches world literature at The Ohio State University. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband Arnulfo and their two sons, Liam Miguel and Ethan Andrés. She loves to interact with teachers, students, and anybody interested in books and ideas.
Q: Please describe Out of Darkness using any five words.
Close-to-home, from-the-margins, explosive, hopeful, and tragic.
Or, if I were to string my five words together into a phrase: “toughest novel to write yet.” I grew up in a town about twenty minutes from New London, so the history of the community is personal in many ways. I also feel in a palpable way how hard this book may be for folks back home, especially in how it deals with racism.
Q: Out of Darkness does a fantastic job of shedding light on point of views found in the 1930s that aren’t often discussed. How did you know you wanted to write about people often unseen, like Naomi and Wash?
Narrating from the margins has been part of my approach to my fiction ever since I began writing for my students at Chávez High back in 2005. My first two novels, What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly, focus on contemporary Latina/o experiences, especially those that are not part of mainstream awareness. The main character of The Knife and the Butterfly is a homeless Salvadoran-American teenage boy who has dropped out of school and slipped through the cracks in a broken foster-care system. What Can’t Wait highlights a little-discussed challenge that is especially potent for Mexican-American teens from traditional families: how to pursue their own path and success when the needs and expectations for helping out at home are all consuming.
From the very earliest stages of writing Out of Darkness, I thought about it as the historical novel that my (former) high school students wouldn’t be able to put down. I also knew that I wanted it to be a book that would surface aspects of minority experience in the past. For example, readers of Out of Darkness discover that cities like San Antonio had three-fold school segregation: white schools, “colored” schools for African Americans, and “Mexican” schools for Mexican Americans and other Latinos.
I also noticed that articles and the two non-fiction books on the New London explosion focused exclusively on how it affected the white community. That raised questions for me about what this event meant for African Americans in New London. Black children were spared from the tragedy precisely because they had been systematically denied access to the opportunities at the far better equipped New London school.
Q: How did you go about researching for Out of Darkness? Did you find anything you weren’t expecting during your research?
I started with the archives and curated materials at the London Museum, which stands near the site of the school explosion and is dedicated to telling the story of the disaster. While I was going through the archives, I came across a kind of yearbook of the children who died, complete with photographs. One child was named Juanita Herron, and I immediately thought of how her surname would be written in Spanish: Herrón. Juanita had short dark hair and a serious expression; like several students with the last name “Drinkwater” (a name connected to Cherokee communities), she appeared a bit darker complected than most of her classmates. Although East Texas in 1937 had been described to me as a community where white and African American people lived deeply segregated lives, I began to think about how the particular moment—there was an oil boom—might have changed things by bringing in people from outside the community. On top of the questions I had about the African American experience of the explosion, then, I began to think about what it might have meant to be Mexican American in this primarily black and white town.
Those questions ultimately opened onto my discovery (or creation) of Naomi, Wash, and the twins. My questions also raised all kinds of challenges for me as a writer trying to capture what life was like in 1930s East Texas, particularly for my characters. And while there are oral histories of African Americans who were alive at the time, the experiences of Mexican Americans in East Texas in the 1930s are basically absent from the historical record. To fill in that gap, I drew heavily on research about the lives of Mexican Americans living in other parts of Texas.
Q: Did you plan the story of Out of Darkness or figure it out as you go along?
I never have an outline of my novels when I start out. I tend to find my characters and embrace a few “realities” of their situations, and then I see how who they are interacts with their circumstances. In the case of Out of Darkness, I knew the school explosion would impinge in important ways on my characters’ lives, although I didn’t know exactly what that impact would be starting out. I also knew that there would be a romance that crossed racial lines, a hollow tree as a secret meeting place, and twins. In time, I figured out more about my characters’ lives, like the fact that Naomi and her twin half-siblings were coming from San Antonio and that Naomi’s stepfather would be a different kind of disaster from the school explosion.
Q: If there’s one thing you’d like readers to learn from Out of Darkness, what would that be?
I think that the “one thing” would be the importance of thinking hard about our responses to fiction—especially when we find ourselves resisting what happens in a novel. I know that the ending of Out of Darkness is incredibly difficult for many readers, but I would challenge readers to really dig into why it’s hard. It would also be good to ask what its ways of being hard tell us about ourselves, our world, and our reading desires. More than a lesson, I want readers to come away from the novel with questions. For example, “What does it mean to desire justice in a book and to have that desire frustrated?” and “What would it mean to feel a similar degree of outrage at the lack of justice in the world around us?” And one more: “Can the relative absence of hope in a fictional world create an appetite or drive toward hope in the real world?”
Thanks so much for these wonderful questions, Shelly, and thank you for inviting me onto the blog. What a privilege. (No, thank YOU, Ashley, for participating in this event!)
What did you think of this interview? Have you read Out of Darkness, let’s discuss in the comments!